At the beginning of the 21st Century monsters still roam the remote, and sometimes not so remote, corners of our planet. It is our job to search for them. The Centre for Fortean Zoology [CFZ] is - we believe - the largest professional, scientific and full-time organisation in the world dedicated to cryptozoology - the study of unknown animals. Since 1992 the CFZ has carried out an unparalleled programme of research and investigation all over the world. Since 2009 we have been running the increasingly popular CFZ Blog Network, and although there has been an American branch of the CFZ for over ten years now, it is only now that it has a dedicated blog.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

ZACHARY MANN ON CRYPTID TV (PART ONE)

Reality Crypto T.V.
          A friend forwarded me something very interesting the other day. He knows that I have a more than passing interest in Cryptozoology and thought this kind of thing would be right up my alley, as it were. It seems that Gurney Productions, the same reality television production company behind such hit shows as Duck Dynasty, Auction Hunters and Haunted Collectors to name a few, are trying to put together a new kind of reality show. This one (the title is yet to be announced) is to primarily focus on the “next generation of paranormal investigators and Cryptozoologist.” It states that they are looking for young people under the age of 26 who are passionate about these fields to submit their emails, a photo, and a brief bio of themselves and, if the company is interested, they will schedule a phone interview. They seem to be primarily interested in high school or college level kids in a group or club with “unique and outstanding personalities”.  However, they are willing to talk to individuals too. No specifics have been given as to what exactly this show is about, what network it will air on or when production will start. Heck, even a deadline for interested parties hasn’t been set. This is the same friend who suggested that I try and get on the new reality show 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty airing on Spike TV.
          If all of this sounds weird or gives you pause, it should. I know it did for me, but I realized this was the perfect opportunity for me to stop and compile my thoughts on reality as it relates to Cryptozoology, something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, because if there is one thing Americans love to do its watch TV and there are so many things to talk about: how do they reflect on the subject as a whole, are they any good/ produce noteworthy results and evidence to analyze, what impact do they have on the field, are they even a good watch and are they here to stay? All interesting questions. So let’s dive in and start where the current trend of reality based Cryptozoology began with the 2007 SyFy show Destination Truth.
       To be fair, you could say that these all owe their existence to shows of yesteryear like In Search Of… or Unsolved Mysteries and while that’s true they weren’t “reality TV” the way modern reality TV is. Destination Truth was the brain child of television producer Neil Mandt. It ran from 2007 through 2012 with a break in 2013 and it was just confirmed by the host via Facebook on March, 27, 2014 that the show would not be returning from hiatus meaning it has been canceled. The basic concept is based very much off the network’s other wildly popular reality based paranormal show Ghost Hunters. In fact I would not be surprised if the pitch for the show went something like “it’s just like Ghost Hunters, but with monsters!” Anyway, Destination Truth, released in the UK as The Monster Hunter, stars Josh Gates. He is your host/narrator as you travel to exotic locations around the world in search of the “truth” behind strange legends and scary monsters. The format was an hour long show with commercials, about 45 minutes without them, and during that time he would introduce you to the mysteries. Usually the episode was broken into two half hour segments, although sometimes (like for a season premiere or finale) they would focus one just one subject. The formal was pretty much always the same: introduce the subject, go to where the witnesses said they saw it, talk to a few eyewitnesses and sometimes experts, then go out and try to find “proof” of the phenomenon. This usually consisted of spending a few hours outside at night stomping around “looking” for the creature or ghost and then going home, analyzing any “evidence” found and making a final statement.
          Now I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand I really like it for the fact that the show usually played up the experience of actually going to these places and what the people experience going to another country and seeing another culture. The definite emphases was on the idea that, like any good road trip, the journey was more important than the destination. It also left a lot of humor in the show. I’ve always felt that we as Cryptozoologist can at times to too “serious” and need to lighten up. For the most part the humor was leveled not at any one in particular and certainly not at the people they were talking too, but just about how crazy some of their “adventures” are. One trope was, no matter where they went, they could never get a good working car. In short this felt like what it would be like to gather a group of your best buddies from college and say, “Hey let’s all go out this weekend, go camping, and we’ll look for Bigfoot.”
      I also liked that for the first season and most of the second, the focus was all on Cryptids or legendary animals, in fact only one episode from season one had a segment to do with ghosts and only four segments from the twice as long season two. Also they quite often would look for Cryptids not generally well known to the majority of the audience, the audience being people with only a passing interest in Cryptozoology, and who have probably never read a single Cryptids related book in their lives. It did give the chance to expose them to the general public and get so investigation into these creatures which they probably would not have gotten and investigation into them from “real” monster hunters, probably because of lack of interest or funds. But I’ve always said Cryptozoologist should put just as much time into more obscure creatures too, not just Bigfoot and Nessie. Some really amazing surprises could be made if we did. And if they ever found anything they would try to get real experts, such as curators of zoos and respected zoologists to try and take a look at it and get their opinions. Most of the times they would only come back with stories and nothing more.
          And did they find anything? Well yes and no. No in the sense that had they found undeniable proof of a Cryptid, we all would have heard about it by now. And their ratings would be through the roof! But they did find interesting things from time to time. Like a footprint in the Himalayas that might have belonged to a Yeti. They also found strange footprints in Vietnam and Malaysia too of large seemingly bipedal creatures. They had a strange sighting in Iceland of a large something in one of their lakes and found the unidentifiable remains of something in the caves of Madagascar when looking for the giant bat the Fangalabolo. The two most promising things ever where, a sample of hair in Bhutan that seemed to register as non-human primate, yet unlike any kind known to science (the main problem here is that they had it analyzed by the now notorious Dr. Melba Ketchum, so any results there would be in question) as well as filming through their night vision camera something large and seemingly bipedal moving through the jungles of Vietnam.
  Now for the bad. One thing they did which, while not surprising yet very frustrating, is referring to local creatures by more common names that are not used in the local area. Like when they went to Malaysia and looked for large hairy bipedal creatures, they constantly referred to them as Bigfoot. Yet that name is not used to describe such creatures in that part of the world. They did get better at this over time, but I feel that they could have seriously affected their search. For example in one episode they talked about the legendary Mokele Mbembe, the alleged sauropod-like dinosaur creature from the Congo. When most of the natives they questioned had no idea what they were talking about they used this as “evidence” that the creature was more fabled invention than fact. However, they were not in the Congo, but in Zambia a country with a similar kind of reported creature, but with a completely different unrelated native name. No wonder they didn’t know what they were talking about. They were asking about something in another language.
          Another thing was as time passed, they moved more and more away from Cryptids and into more ghosts and paranormal. In fact, in the last three seasons most of the focus was on these as opposed to Cryptids.  This could also be seen as the first segments tended to be longer and those more often than not were the ones about ghosts. To be fair, they never said it would be a Cryptid only show, but it was decidedly a disappointment. Veteran Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman expressed a similar unhappiness about this on his blog Cryptomundo. I kind of get why this was done, ghosts are probably more marketable than giant bats no one (I generalize here) has ever heard of, but still a disappointment.
          And another difference in the treatment of ghost versus Cryptids that always struck me as weird, was how they finished segments. What I mean is that at the end of each segment Josh would weigh in on their adventure as well as whether he thought the subject was real or not. Now he freely admits, both on the show and in a book he wrote about his travels, that he is skeptical and that is fine and fair. However, a lot of the times he would seemingly write off the possibility that a Cryptid could be real based a lot on the fact that he didn’t find evidence of it in the three hours he spent stomping around the bushes in Africa one night. I hate to break it to you Josh, but men have been searching for most of these things for decades, odds are you weren’t going to find them in one try. Yet on many occasions he would have a strange, yet often explainable, encounter while out ghost hunting and yet seem completely ready to say “yes ghosts, they are the only logical explanation!” Now I’m not totally against paranormal study (I do however firmly believe we should try and find a real world explanation first before jumping into the paranormal) yet I find it strange that they seemed far more lenient with ghosts than Cryptids. Maybe it’s just me.
          All in all it was a fun ride and truth be told I’m sad to see it go for good. That being said, the real importance it had was that it, more so than any other such show before it, is seemingly responsible for the trend in current Cryptid based reality TV, but that is the subject for the next post. So stay tuned. We’ve still got a lot of stuff to talk about and shows to analyze.

Editor's note: To add to the confusion, Zaire has now changed its name to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  When I was young, there were two Congos, the French Congo (the mokele-mbembe one) and the Belgian Congo.  When they gained independence, both were called simply Congo, distinguished by their capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa.  Then General Mobutu changed the name of the Congo (Kinshasa) to Zaire.  When he was overthrown, Zaire once more adopted the name of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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